Part One: The Invitation
As a child, I traveled to India every four years with my family to see relatives. I hated it because I got deathly sick from dysentery, because my parents tried to dress me up in girly clothes, because relatives pinched my cheeks too hard. I would now say I had the luxury to hate it. But my grandmothers lived there – the stern one and the soft one – and my three uncles, and many of my eight aunts, and a whole slew of cousins, including one I had a crush on. I had a favorite uncle and a favorite married-into-the-family-uncle, and a favorite aunt and also a favorite married-into-the-family-aunt. As I became an older teen and was more withdrawn, I hid behind my camera and I saw other parts of India: the poverty and dust, the rice patties and mountains, the rare smile of my Baby-mammi.
And then when I was 19, I shaved my head. And my relationship with India was forever changed.
Shaving my head was like coming Home. So was coming out of the closet (as a bisexual — I didn’t understand the word ‘queer’ back then). But it came at a price. My parents, filled with dreams of their feminine daughter, were horrified. That year, Thanksgiving was moved to New Jersey so that no one from my hometown in Connecticut would see me. For the next ten years I would be hidden away from family friends, sometimes invited to larger family functions and often uninvited. Thanksgiving and Christmas became very small family affairs so no one outside the immediate family would have the chance to see me. When my brother was married in 1998, I was told not to come to India for the that part of the celebration. For more than ten years, my mother would look at me with palpable disappointment and disgust.
I managed as best I could. I dropped out of college and struggled with depression. I dated my first girlfriend. I made it back to school and met Elizabeth, my partner. I graduated from college and worked for a while. I moved to NYC with Elizabeth to get a masters degree in theater, which my parents graciously paid for. I even went to India one summer to work for an LGBT non-profit in Bangalore, and when my parents couldn’t stop me from going, they made me promise I would not seek out any family members while I was there.
Going to India changed everything. I knew when I got back that I was not just a butch, I was a transgender man with a body that did not fit him. I tried to tell this to my parents, but they didn’t want to hear about it, so I wrote them a letter. (I have no idea if they ever read it.) When my beard began to grow in, my mother refused to see me – this banishment lasted two years, during which time the rest of the family spent holidays together without me. My father was the only one to keep in touch.
And then one fateful Thanksgiving three years ago, Elizabeth and I were invited back home. My mother was reluctant at first, but after my top surgery, they seemed to finally accept that there was no going back. Our relationship improved dramatically: For the first time since I was 14, my mother was not looking at me with disappointment or disgust, was not angry with me. (Ironically, this is also the year they became Obama democrats after being staunch republicans their whole American lives). I was 33 years old. We had been on the outs for almost 20 years, and now it was over! Now they wanted me to come visit them, wanted to send me home with goat curry and biryani and my favorite tamarind eggplant curry. Elizabeth was welcomed as my partner (instead of my roommate) and allowed to sleep in the same room with me. They still weren’t very good about names or pronouns, but they loved me. That’s what counted.
And, of course, somethings did not change. The relationship I had with my brother and aunt (who also lived in America) deteriorated when I came out as trans, and continues to be poor. I was never invited to come over or to celebrate my niece’s birthdays, though they got together with each other often and we all lived in the same city. I was not allowed to be around my parents when extended family members came through town. I was told not to contact anyone in India or any Indian family friends who lived in the States. My mom said this was not because they were ashamed of me, but because they wanted to protect me and themselves. You could not possibly understand, they said, because you’re not a parent, but we couldn’t bear the possibility of people saying bad things about you. If anyone ever found out, it would hurt the family, it would hurt the chances of anyone who wanted to get married – who would marry into a family with such a reputation?
They said, You have so many friends here in America. We’re old, we have just a few people we talk to, you leave us these people. If anyone were to ever find out, we could never again show our face. We would have to stop talking to our friends. We would be all alone. And when they say this, it doesn’t feel like a threat. This is how they would feel compelled to respond.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to lose my parents again after so many years already lost between us. Who knew how many years we had left? So I said this, I would not reach out to people I didn’t know, but I wouldn’t turn away people who reached out to me. And then we did not speak of it again.
But this is the age of Facebook. And my cousins in India are part of the technological revolution like the rest of the world. It began with one cousin (we’ll call her A–) who friended me three years ago. I was shocked. First, I accepted the friend request; then, nervous I unfriended her. Then I re-friended her, this time with a letter explaining the situation, explaining that I’m trans, that my parents would rather no one know about me, and that I left it up to her discretion. Her response? “I’m happy for you. You’re my cousin and I love you.”
Today, I have five cousins from India who are “friends” with me through Facebook, and Yasmine, a family friend from my childhood who now lives in MN and is as close to a family ally as I have in this world. My parents don’t know about the cousins on facebook, and are afraid that one day Yasmine will tell her parents about me.
And that is where things remain. My parents go to India every winter and tell me very little about these trips. And I tell them nothing about Facebook. It is a strained status quo we have achieved. I feel like perhaps I am colluding with them in my own banishment, but don’t know how to not do this. And they say, We keep things from you to protect your feelings, but this is the way things have to be. Nobody would be able to understand what you are.
And then, just a few weeks ago, something happened that has never happened before. A–, my younger cousin who lives in Chennai sent me the following email:
“Hey cuz… GUESS WHAT???!!! I’m all jumping for joy and some how with cold feet already! My wedding date is confirmed.. I’m getting married on 21st of Jan.. !!! The main reason for this mail… listen I know people might ask you to not come etc.. but I love you and you are my cousin … one I’ve grown to love and be very proud of.. So at the risk of getting disappointed… I’m gonna say it.. please come…you have to!!! Give everyone my love… xoxox, A–”
I wonder if you can appreciate the simultaneous joy and terror I feel at reading these words.
I know, though they haven’t told me, that my parents are going to this wedding. (They were talking about it with my brother via skype one day when I walked into the room, and they immediately changed the subject.) I also know my grandmother will be at this wedding. And also A–, who says she loves me and is proud of me…
The terror is palpable. I imagine losing my parents all over again. I imagine feeling that feeling again: That I am personally responsible for my parents’ misery. It’s not about what’s rational, it’s about being swept away by feelings that are as large as the house I grew up in. It’s about family.
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And now we have arrived at the portion of this story that I call Audience Participation: I ask you, Reader, for your thoughtfulness here. What would you have done if you were in my situation and why?
(Please stay tuned for Part Two of Banished from India: A Two-Part Story with Audience Participation.)